The Working Mom-nivore's Dilemma: Home-Cooked Meals = Stress

Last week was a good week in our household. My mom came to visit, so that meant there would be home-cooked meals on the table every night for my kids, meals I wouldn't feel pressured to prepare. (The photo is one meal my mom whipped together, a Greek-Turkish meat filo pie.)

The idea of regularly preparing a healthy dinner for the family can cause stress in my life. It's hard to work a full day and then whip up something everyone will eat that's also good for us all. And ordering take-out food can sometimes feel like a foodie fail!

Turns out, I'm not alone.

A new study from the North Carolina State University entitled The Joy of Cooking? shows that "home cooking and family meals place significant stresses on many families--and are simply impossible for others."

"In the fight to combat rising obesity rates," the authors point out, "modern-day food gurus advocate a return to the kitchen." But the message from the likes of The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, The New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, the Food Network's Rachael Ray and even First Lady Michele Obama, may be misguided, the study found.

The authors of the study:

... offer a critique of the increasingly prevalent message that reforming the food system necessarily entails a return to the kitchen. They argue that time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.

Indeed, some nights I can't muster the energy to kick off my work shoes and become a barefoot short-order cook, let alone a barefoot contessa!

The findings of The Joy of Cooking? study uncovered this reality. The authors write: "Though the mothers we met were squeezed for time, they were still expected to produce elaborate meals cooked from scratch."

The bigger question may be why we still keep asking moms about all things related to the homefront?

"While I agree we have to, as a society, create more ways to support families, we also need to recognize that mothers are not the only ones providing care for families," maintained Anne Weisberg, Families and Work Institute's Senior Vice President. "Our research shows that fathers do -- and want to -- provide more care than ever before. Studies like this reinforce old patterns of care making it harder for all of us to reimagine them."

Clearly, we need to expand the discussion beyond just moms.

Full disclosure: My husband is a great cook, but he's an engineer and cooks like an engineer, chopping everything up into perfect pieces, putting them in separate bowls and slowly creating a fabulous meal. Alas, we're typically eating late into the night; not ideal on school nights.

I love that the authors of the North Carolina study offer some suggestions to the home-cooking conundrum.

Let's move this conversation out of the kitchen, and brainstorm more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families. How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.